Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love what Thou dost love,
and do what Thou wouldst do.
By Charles Wynder, Jr.
The world is gasping for breath. The novel coronavirus’s chief death-producing modality is to deny our ability to get oxygen. Humanity has witnessed more than 7.5 million confirmed cases. More than 100,000 of nearly half a million global deaths have occurred inside the United States. Some communities are bearing a particularly historic and disproportionate burden. Nationwide, Black people are dying at more than twice the rate of white people. Latinos in Washington State comprise only six percent of the population but 20 percent of the coronavirus cases. Indigenous communities have the highest per capita rate of infection. The Navajo Nation faces possible decimation.
The world is gasping for breath. Unable to work remotely from home, large numbers of Black and Latino people work on the frontlines of the pandemic. Working without adequate personal protective equipment and labor protections guaranteeing appropriate ventilation and physical distancing, they carry the burden of exposure. Jobs in warehouses, post offices, meat packing plants, hospitals, and in sanitation have been designated as essential. Amidst these challenges, Asian Americans have faced physical and verbal abuse during the pandemic. The disparate impact on minorities has led these communities to speak of a dual pandemic: the novel coronavirus and virulent racism.
Weeks of large, sustained protests have gripped cities and towns across the United States and around the globe. The cries for justice following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have involved deep calls for change. Some commentators believe these multiracial crowds chanting Black Lives Matter have the potential to propel significant change in the nation’s criminal justice system and policing.
Public acceptance of the deaths of Black people at the hands of police and the disproportionate deaths from the novel coronavirus point to the deadly reality of a racialized hierarchy of human value. People and systems in American society consistently provide better care, extend greater opportunity, and provide sizeable rewards to people who are identified as white. Meanwhile, policies, practices, and procedures back Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian Pacific Islander bodies against a wall of diminished life chances and death. This value gap has significant consequences for individuals, families and whole communities.
In a recent essay entitled, How Do We Change America? Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor says this question around making change is as old as the nation itself. She writes of how the question is asked against a backdrop of “a palpable poverty of intellect, a lack of imagination, and banality of ideas pervading mainstream politics today.” She contends, “old and failed propositions are recycled about, proclaimed as new, reviving cynicism and dismay.” Too often, this description characterizes the Church’s response to historic opportunities for transformative justice-making.
Are we willing to participate in reimagining ourselves, our communities, institutions, and way of being?
I ask with a great sense of urgency. My son will turn 5 in August and, as all parents do, I wake each morning thinking of his development and flourishing. He speaks fluently about the “virus blob” and often names the way his life has changed to accommodate this new reality. I ache when I envision him fighting the virulent racism that seeks to destroy his dreams, potential, and very life. My mind recalls the words of James Baldwin in his book, The Fire Next Time: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving.”
Imani Perry’s Breathe: A Letter to My Sons captures the work I am called to live into at the intersection of my vocation as a parent and a priest. She writes, “Breathing life back into the past, pulling from the ranks of your history, is how you build yourself. You are born to something and someplace; you become of a living accord and road. This is how we move forward. Letting the constraints of the moment die a little bit, to breathe life into the process of becoming.”
Her words ground me as a Black priest working to advance social and racial justice. They point to the hope necessary to faithfully exercise anew the power of imagination. COVID-19 promises to transform whole societies. Jobs, businesses, colleges, and many churches will cease to exist. New ways of conducting the work of daily life will emerge. Structural racism will remain embedded on the other side of the pandemic if we do not work to disrupt it. We cannot assume progress and change one year after commemorating the 400 hundred-year anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans to former British North America.
“How is God calling the Church to co-labor in the work of transforming the people, institutions, and communities of the nation?”
God is inviting the Church to live fully into its vocation as the body of Christ committed to embodying a prophetic imagination. We can work intentionally to resist the dominant American ideology of white supremacy which works to cement a racialized hierarchy. The Church can work with others to reimagine the life force of the nation so that it accepts the lifegiving, loving, and liberating movement of God in the world.
Walter Brueggemann asserts, “[t]he formation of an alternative community with an alternative consciousness is so that the dominant community may be criticized and finally dismantled. But more than dismantling, the purpose of the alternative community is to enable a new human beginning to happen.” This is the work of the Church at this time. She must actively participate in the reimagination of everything so that God’s freedom and politics of justice and compassion reign.
Reimagine All of Society During the Dual Pandemic
The capacity of the Church to co-labor with community leaders depends on our willingness to release our current concepts of the world. Policing and the criminal justice system need to be deconstructed, reconstructed, and transformed anew. The nation cannot default to a militarized police force focused on social control of Black and Brown bodies. Public safety must be redefined and reimagined. The Church must recall that Jesus lived in an occupied land subject to constant policing.
Conversely, the Church must participate in the development of a new narrative that centers society on God’s economy, focused on human flourishing, an ethic of care, and renewal. This renewal is possible if we decenter our gaze on force and domination exercised by the government. Instead, we can reimagine the commonwealth to focus on the goods of public education, community health, meaningful work and labor for all people.
Live into Solidarity and Justice
Many in the Church have read Just Mercy or heard Bryan Stevenson, the author say, “It’s actually in proximity that we hear things that we won’t otherwise hear, that we’ll see things we won’t otherwise see. The things we hear and see are critical to our knowledge and our capacity to problem solve.” The ability to fully live into the commitments we make in our baptismal covenant is enhanced when we are proximate and decide to embody an ethic of subsidiarity.
What if we lived out a commitment to the intrinsic value of all people, recognizing that we are all created in the image of God by living into the virtue of solidarity? The people who gather, worship and serve as Church are called to embody solidarity with others in material and spiritual ways. Too often, we fail to understand the centrality of moral proximity and solidarity.
Collaborate with Others to Advance Regional Race Equity
When addressing the question, “Who is my neighbor?” churches tend to embrace programs which change race dynamics on the personal or interpersonal level. Too often congregations, dioceses, and denominations have been less interested in the work of concrete systemic change. Imagine the network of community-based congregations that constitute dioceses equipping all members to advance racial justice and equity. Churches would study the racial disparities in their local communities; understand the roles that policy, public revenues, segregation, and gentrification play in reinforcing racial hierarchy and racism; and advocate for system change. Think about the impact a diocese could have when its congregations join interfaith and ecumenical efforts to work in multi-sector initiatives to advance and sustain regional race equity.
Understand Freedom is a Constant Struggle
History teaches us that we cannot assume progress or change will happen. Racial injustices continue and the coronavirus numbers are on the rise in many states. The dual pandemic continues to wreak havoc on life. Will we choose to resuscitate the Church and breathe life into efforts to bring God’s justice on earth?
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
so shall I never die,
but live with Thee the perfect life
of Thine eternity.
The Rev. Charles Wynder, Jr. is staff officer for social justice and advocacy engagement for the Episcopal Church.